News Pope comforts Congo victims: “Your pain is my pain”

KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Pope Francis urged Congolese people Wednesday to forgive those who committed “inhuman violence” against them, to hold Mass for a million people and then hear firsthand the atrocities some suffered:  a teenage girl who was raped “like an animal” for months; a young man who witnessed the beheading of his father; a former sex slave who was forced to eat people.

Congolese from the country’s violence-ravaged east traveled to the capital, Kinshasa, to tell the pope about years of horrific violence they have suffered as rebel groups try to seize territory in the mineral-rich region in attacks that have forced more than five million people to Leave to flee home.

After victims came forward to tell their stories, Francis sat in silence as a victim. He watched them offer symbols of their pain at the feet of crucifixes: the machetes used to mutilate and kill, or the straw mats on which they were raped. As they knelt before him for blessings, Francis placed his hands on their heads, or on the stump of the remaining arm.

“Your tears are my tears; your pain is my pain,” Francis told them. “To every family grieving or displaced by the burning of villages and other war crimes, to every survivor of sexual violence, and to every injured child and adult, I say: I am with you; I want to bring you God caress.”

The intimate encounter at the Vatican’s embassy in Kinshasa was a remarkable moment as a priest tried to comfort his flock and a pope tried to shine the spotlight on what Francis called a “forgotten genocide” that hardly became news. Despite being one of the world’s largest UN peacekeeping operations, eastern Congo has been mired in violence since the early 1990s as rebels and militias vie for control of the mineral-rich territory.

“What a scandal, what a hypocrisy, because people are being raped and killed, while the businesses that cause this violence and death continue to thrive!” Francis said of the foreign powers and extractive industries that are developing eastern Congo. “enough!”

Francis had planned to visit the eastern province of North Kivu, where rebel groups have stepped up attacks over the past year, and his trip was originally scheduled for July.

But the Vatican had to cancel a visit to Goma after the itinerary was rescheduled as the fighting has forced some 5.7 million people to flee their homes, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in Congo, where some 26.4 million people are reportedly facing starvation World Food Programme.

Instead, residents of the East came before Francis with harrowing testimony.

Ladislas Kambale Kombi, from the Beni region in eastern North Kivu province, told Francis he saw men in military uniform beheading his father, putting his head in a basket and leaving with his mother. Never saw her again.

“At night, I couldn’t sleep,” he said. “It’s hard to comprehend this evil, this almost animalistic brutality.”

Bijoux Makumbi Kamala, 17, recounts how she was kidnapped by rebels in 2020 while traveling to fetch water in Walikale, North Kivu province. She said through a translator that she was raped “like an animal” by commanders every day until she escaped 19 months later.

“Screaming is useless because no one can hear me or come to my rescue,” she said, adding that she gave birth to twin girls who “never knew their father” and passed Services provided by the Catholic Church found comfort.

The AP does not typically identify victims of sexual violence, but those who told Francis about their stories became public when their testimony began.

Emelda M’karhungulu, from a village near Bukavu in Congo’s South Kivu province, described through a translator how the armed men who invaded her village in 2005 were held as sex slaves for three months at the age of 16. She said she was raped every day by 5 to 10 men who forced captives to eat the meat of the people they killed, mixed with animal meat and cornmeal.

“That is our daily food; whoever refuses, they are beheaded, and then they are fed to us,” she said. M’karhungulu said she finally escaped one day while carrying water.

While forced cannibalism is not widespread, the United Nations and human rights groups documented how it was used as a weapon of war in parts of eastern Congo in the early 2000s.

A statement prepared several months earlier by Désiré Dhetsina was read aloud on his behalf; Dhetsina disappeared on February 1, 2022 after surviving an attack in a camp for internally displaced persons in Ituri Province, northeastern Congo, bordering Uganda .

“I saw brutality: people were cut up like meat in butcher shops; women were disemboweled and men beheaded,” Dhetsina reported. As his story was read to Francis, two women stood in front of the Pope, lifting the stumps of their mutilated arms into the air.

Francis condemned the violence and urged Congolese victims to always use their pain to sow the seeds of peace and reconciliation. He also delivered the message to the crowd earlier in the day at a mass at Kinshasa’s Ndolo airport, in which he cited the example of Christ, who forgave those who betrayed him.

“He showed them his wounds, because forgiveness is born out of wounds,” Francis said. “It is born when our wounds stop leaving the scars of hate and become our way of making space for others and accepting their weaknesses. Our weaknesses become opportunities, and forgiveness becomes the path to peace.”

Roughly half of Congo’s 105 million people are Catholic, according to the Vatican, which also cited local organizers as saying an estimated 1 million people attended Francis’ mass.

Among the believers is Clément Konde, from Kisantu, a small town in Central Congo province more than 150 kilometers (95 miles) from Kinshasa. He plans to attend all of Francis’ events this week before the pope heads to South Sudan, the second leg of his trip to Africa.

“I will convey the message of the Holy Father, the message of peace and reconciliation to my children and to those who remain in my city,” Conde said.


This story has been updated to correct a person’s last name quoted. It’s Konde, not L’onde. ___

AP’s religion coverage is supported through a partnership between AP and The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The Associated Press is solely responsible for this content.

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